There aren’t many charter boat skippers around Tampa Bay these days who specialize in tossing artificial lures.
The ease of catching fish with live sardines, particularly for anglers without a lot of experience, has made live bait the go-to standard for dozens of guides. And there’s no question the silvery baitfish are deadly on every inshore gamefish.
But captain Ray Markham of Terra Ceia has taken another route.
“I just don’t like fishing live bait,” Markham said. “I like the idea of fooling the fish with a lure, and I like the process of casting, working the lure just right, setting the hook at the right moment. The whole thing is just more interesting.”
Of course, it’s a lot more challenging, too.
Unlike guides who use live sardines as both bait and magic chum, Markham does not get that nice string of explosions along the shoreline to tip him off as to where the snook and redfish are hanging out.
And because artificials don’t feed the fish and keep them in one spot, it’s not common to sit in one location and catch a dozen or more, as is sometimes the case with sardine skippers.
“It’s basically just a different clientele I cater to,” Markham said. “Anglers who have done enough fishing to know how to cast reasonably well, and who appreciate getting to see a lot of backcountry and picking out the spots for each cast, are the ones who really prefer fishing lures to fishing sardines.
“For people who can’t cast at all, of course, live baiting is a lot easier, and that might be the better route for them.”
Markham said if he had only one lure to fish year-round, it would be a DOA CAL jig head in quarter-ounce weight, with a 4- to 5-inch soft plastic shad tail in white or a pearl color.
“Just about everything, from snook to reds to trout to flounder will hit that lure,” Markham said, “and it’s very easy to work. Just pop it up off bottom, let it sink, and then repeat.”
He also likes the DOA shrimp, most often fished under a popping cork — an easy system for those new to fishing artificials to learn because it’s very similar to live baiting — and tossing an assortment of MirrOlure hard baits, including the MirrOdine in shallow grass flats.
He typically arms his anglers with spinning tackle, with 2,500-size reels and 10-pound-test braid, tipped with a length of 20- to 30-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. His lures are tied on with a loop knot to allow them extra action.
I’ve fished with Markham many times, and he consistently outfishes me, even though I consider myself a reasonably good lure angler. He thinks the difference might be the power he puts into the retrieve.
“I really snap that lure up off the bottom,” he said. “It’s a quick, violent action, and that seems to trigger the strikes a lot more often than just a pull-and-drop retrieve.”
He uses the same tactic when fishing a popping cork. The violent jerks make the cork chug and pop loudly, and the noise seems particularly attractive to trout.
The other thing that makes Markham effective is his bone-deep knowledge of the terrain. With more than 20 years of guiding the area, he knows every pot hole, cut and mangrove point intimately.
On the half-day I joined him, we fished the string of bays and mangrove islands that stretch south from the Sunshine Skyway. We caught a steady assortment of big redfish, trout and flounder, along with an occasional snook. It was rare to go 5 minutes between bites. For those who get impatient waiting for something to find their sardine, there’s something to be said for run-and-gun lure tossing.
The other major advantage of fishing artificials, Markham pointed out, is that you can start casting at first light — prime time for low-light feeders such as snook.
“I just hate the idea of spending that best hour of the morning throwing a cast net for bait instead of fishing,” Markham said. “And the other nice thing about lures is that they’re always there in my tacklebox.
“There are no days when I have a hard time getting bait.”
For more, visit www.captainraymarkham.com.